What Have We Learned?
How much has the text or its author learned in 31 years?
Maybe not much, or not a lot we couldn't have suspected even in less traumatic times. Which is to say, where this work and I find ourselves two decades into the next century is in some ways not that far from pre-Millennial conditions. Consider this moment from a very late stream -- already, in its own way, a strange jump into the relative future:
"Heidel resigned," I tell her. "It was in the Chronicle."
" I saw it."
Then she'll also have seen where he's going: Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Baltics, a special faculty exchange endowed by the Braithwaite Fund. Sharing the Vision. The true West rescues the benighted East from its errors.
"Like the song says," Thea muses. "Tomorrow belongs to me."
Let's leave aside the fact that I have no idea who the "I" of this passage is, though I suspect he (she?) is not the same we meet earlier. Perhaps this figure is my earlier self's prognostication of a later state, if that is not too confusing. In which case, wrong state: the prairie not the coast, as it happened. So much for clairvoyance.
And yet, clairvoyance, or at least idiot savantry, is the real issue here. Against expectations, this writer (that writer) got some things depressingly right. (He should maybe try the ponies.) Reversing the vector of supposed enlightenment, or anti-Enlightenment, see the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference in its "illiberally" extramural venue. Or this:
...which is admittedly a fiction, not-so-deep fakery with depth of field. Seen another way, though, it just expresses the collage-logic of personal truth. In my movie, that's the shot. Another scene in the Garden. Flaming swords, tiki torches. Available light.
In the old story the Garden is a place for ignorant innocence, a timeless dispensation. Knowing nothing but God, the first couple could not see what was coming: the before time was before time. Similarly, 1991 was beforetimes with respect to many things: the second Bush regime, 9/11 and ensuing wars of reprisal and occupation, the re-skinning of the state from National to Homeland Security -- and two terms of an African-American presidency, to be sure. But meanwhile other trends held on:
About a week before the war began, the Census Bureau reported that the wealth of the most affluent fifth of Americans grew 14% during the eighties while the wealth of the remaining four-fifths remained static.
The median net worth of white families was $43,280.
The median net worth of black families was $4,170.
29% of black households reported that they had no wealth.
29% of white households reported wealth in excess of $100,000.
1% of households controlled one-third of the wealth.
The race gap is roughly the same at this writing. The one-percenter share has edged closer to 40%. Don't say nothing changes.
Once upon a time, all art (and life) aspired to the condition of video. "Everything now, in its own way, wants to be television," Greg Ulmer begins his Teletheory. Arguably we'd put that differently now. For starters, "television" has taken on new meaning. The change was already underway in the nineties, tracking the rise of news-spectacle in developments like ABC's Nightline ("America Held Hostage: Day 11,351") and the relegation of journalism to the entertainment division. Oh, Kenneth, whatever was the frequency? We never found out.
Those salad days of Wolf and Bernie look quite twee, set against the present videodrome with its red-meat/true-blue binary and its unending struggle of Fact versus Alternative Fact. Did everything really want to be television? On the evidence, we can at least say that TV news has always wanted to be war. Though like most contents of a dark mirror, that's at least partly illusion.
Outside the 24-7 free-fire zone, quaintly known as the "news cycle," this warfare probably seems more of the "bush" or "cod" variety. The on-camera talent may believe they're fighting devils and struggling for the national soul, but the most important conflict lies outside their networks.
"Here's a little thing we call Web Three," as Mr. Burnett might sing in an updated "Humans from Earth." ("Do you have cryptocurrency?") These days everything is socially mediated, whether it wants to be or not. The original Victory Garden, bless its bits, wasn't even Web 1.0, though it may have had certain affinities in that direction. It was confined to a nine-inch-diagonal, monochrome window and came on a diskette. You could hold it in your hand. You stuck it in a slot, in a thing that was sort of like an ATM but it only gave out text, not cash. I know, weird.
As the Web's digit counter spun up new integers, "media" came to refer to things much less discrete: pages algorithmically factored, "content" to be shared on increasingly pervasive screens, engineered to generate records of behavior which have become the basis for a new, invisible economy. This is the bounty of "social" -- much less as in ice cream than insects. Honey from the bees.
Which gets us back to the Garden, metaphorically and topically, and what may be learned by returning. Since this matter is partly personal, I will start with a confession. It has been my policy in this version to leave the writing as it was. I may occasionally have bent that rule, but in this respect a slothful disposition is virtuous. Generally I've declined to rewrite, even when the words on the screen induce serious CRINGE. For instance:
Paranoia... what does it mean beyond a quaint "sixties" conceit... maybe due for its comeback like everything else about that jejune decade... a titillating notion that:
A sensitivity to patterns, parallels, correspondences. A higher scrutiny, in every sense of the word. Cause-and-effect yes, but also a hint of something far more deeply interfused.
Gah. Lots to regret here, not limited to the goofy typography. We could start with use of the word "jejune" while committing enough jejunery to last till Labor Day. Also, aping a certain literary master a few thousand times more than necessary with never a trace of subtlety. This all looks a lot less like farrago (even) than fanfic. Which, of course, may not be a distinction you choose to observe. (Oops, I did it again.)
But while the propers of fanfic might be a fine hill to die on, it isn't the heart of the problem. It's that P-word that hangs in evidence like a certain "violent nylon suit." I still feel a massive urge to shoot this lexia into janespace. But yes, some version of "I" wrote it, and as the text insists, it remains connected. This later I can't root it out, and that's the trouble -- not because my cusp-middleaged-yet-not-very-grownup self got the hippie-headed prediction wrong, but precisely the opposite. It's come terribly true. In at least one respect, the world has proved as brutally simple as my small mind imagined.
It did come back, that P-word -- in the pullulating forms of birth certificate lies, slurs against immigrants and Muslims, pizza-parlor blood libels, smirking Russians in the Oval Office, Sharpie-tracked hurricanes, pandemic denials, bleach injection fantasies, the evil clown staring into the heart of the eclipse, super-spreading virus. There he was losing bigtime, then whinging and wheedling over election fraud, throwing his shit at the walls, ultimately conniving in murderous insurrection. Remember Kubrick's fantasy about the madman with nuclear weapons? Turns out it was a prequel.
The P-word is with us, in all its raw brutality, in every form of backlash, the assaults on women's bodies, sexual autonomy, and identity, the neo-Nazi marches and replacement theory and every rifle-assault mass-hanging deathcamp fantasy that ripples behind the increasingly frayed curtains of Q Continuum.
P before Q, however. Most urgently, we see the P-problem in the untruth of the moment, the Big Lie about the 2020 election, foisting thug will to power upon the most basic right of republicans. Here, of course, is where the P-word strikes deepest. We may well scream, only disconnect! Cherish your delusions all you want but don't bring that shit in my house.Still, you know, connected. Ishmael Reed (other master) ends Mumbo Jumbo with a half-century twist of the history dial, 1920 into 1970, the coming-around of what has gone. But the wheel's still in spin (yet another), though somehow it's angling the other way, like some legendary toilet of the antipodes, left to right. Here it comes again, that eighteen-sixties counterculture.
When everything is connected you live inside a loop. The networks are self-assembling. The wires run too deep for extraction. Your neighbors' P-effects inevitably resonate, triggering your own. You know what the other side will do given occasion. The evidence is there in hundreds of bodies of Black, brown, and Asian men, women, and children. It's been played out in churches and schools and grocery stores. Everything is connected -- disastrously -- and this propinquity seems increasingly apt to catch fire -- and now that free-to-carry is more or less law of the land, to open fire. The sociality of our media deepens the disease. It's not just our P-condition. We really do have enemies.
Is there anything to be said against this looming negativity? How can a labyrinthine fiction address, let alone assuage, the disease of the P-word?
There might be a readier answer if Victory Garden belonged to that other (in many cases younger) cohort of cybertexts, the ones that understand themselves as games. In games there can be a differential logic of events, winning solutions threaded through a general matrix of non-winning. That kind of adventure text is all about discovering a happy traversal. I might point back to fictive DNA of Victory Garden, to the words of the ancestor Borges imagines in the ancestral story:
I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.
Not all futures inherit. "In some I am an error, a ghost," Yu Tsun's intelocutor tells him, shortly before his state vector collapses into ignominious murder. (Ghost it is.) This is the only traversal we are given by the page, but times change. An actual Emily (the formidable Ms. Short) or a Meg Jayanth would surely map other outcomes, allowing for at least an illusion of agency. With possible worlds comes some measure of responsibility.
Yet Victory Garden is not a game in either of its incarnations. There is no certifiably correct solution even in my latter-day signposting of default reçit. How does Emily Runbird's vector resolve? (Or Urquhart's, or Victor's?) There is a suggestion of a homecoming, with certain triangular complications. At the same time, hold on for the "Postwar" stream and you will find mourning and melancholia. There is even (spoiler, I should say) a visual elegy, a portrait by Miles Macarthur that remembers Emily at a moment yet to be, on the verge of the Millennium.
Though nothing in the text suggests this, you can linger on that page for quite a while, reloading at will. There's a fair amount of imagined Emily to see. Miles and I have been busy. To a large extent that work of fabrication served as buffer against an increasingly vicious reality.
Our times have grown twisted, like those cut-through hillsides where the rock strata look like cake swirls. There has been a lot of upheaval. In our worst moments, we may seem caught in a Tara Timewarp of multiple anomalies, folding 2022 over 1991, 1920 onto 2020, the 1870s of racist "nadir" against whatever glimmerings may have sparked up a century later. Paradoxically, the twisted architecture of the labyrinth flattens these topologies, at least as Borges understands it. It gathers the timelines into a web but also holds out, if not singular solution, then at least the possibility of possibility. Not all times are the same. In some of these unfoldings, the story may be something more than a tale told by an idiot or an error made up by a ghost. It remains possible, if we understand our agency, to resist or at least manage the seductions of the hivemind, to carom away from the P-word and its nightmares of war and apocalypse. Possible, though by no means assured. We need to work at it; nothing is guaranteed. How should that work proceed? Besides supplying a place for wandering -- which has its undeniable virtues -- of what use is a labyrinth?
If you are the god-novelist Ts'ui Pên (or Borges, or Olaf Stapledon), you can use it to deconstruct time. Ts'ui Pên bequeaths to lucky futures his Garden of all futures, a riddle that is its own meta-answer. That's quite a legacy, and it reveals by contrast the general unworthiness of heirs. These twisted times are not the days of giants. When you get through my excuse for a labyrinth, I'm afraid the best I'll manage is montage, "flash pictures in variable sequence," as yet another master, Joan Didion, revealingly said. In the end this ensemble of visible, replaceable, impossible futures is my best countermeasure against the P's and Q's. Emily's variety is in no way infinite, but it's extensive enough to make a point. Maybe everything is connected, but it is not locked into singularity or stasis -- not yet blindingly one. The system can still produce variation and what may pass at least locally for surprise. There is still time to remember the future differently.
Or so I suggest we hope.